1970s, Action-Adventure, Thriller

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) / The Towering Inferno (1974)

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Directors: Ronald Neame / John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Screenwriters: Wendell Mayes, Stirling Silliphant / Stirling Silliphant

By Roderick Heath

Sparked by the success of Airport (1970) but really catching fire with the release of The Poseidon Adventure, the disaster film became the premier genre for star-laden blockbuster filmmaking and special effects spectacle through much of the 1970s before Star Wars (1977) rudely supplanted it with science fiction. Whilst he didn’t make all of the era’s big disaster movies, producer Irwin Allen became synonymous with them to the point where he was granted the popular nickname “The Master of Disaster.” Funnily enough, up until The Poseidon Adventure Allen had instead been better known for sci-fi, making films like The Lost World (1960) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and TV shows including the latter film’s spin-off, Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. The son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents who grew up poor in New York, Allen first grazed show business by moving to Hollywood in search of job opportunities after the Depression forced him to drop out of college. He spent time editing a magazine before moving into radio and then a syndicated gossip column, before his understanding of the shifting gravity in Hollywood away from studios to talent agencies let him begin producing TV and finally films.

Allen gained success and plaudits with the stock footage-laden documentaries The Sea Around Us (1953) and The Animal World (1954), and applied a similar technique to the much-derided, patched-together fantasy-historical survey The Story of Mankind (1957), a film that evinced his faith in star power and interest in Biblical-scale tales of travail. Soon Allen turned to colourful sci-fi fare to appeal to a young audience. As a director Allen was only competent, and often the films he made himself, as would befall the very expensive but hilariously bad The Swarm (1978), betrayed his lack of instincts in that direction. But as an impresario he had few rivals, and The Poseidon Adventure and its immediate follow-up The Towering Inferno were huge, glitzy hits that cut across the fond legend that at the time everyone was watching moody art films about losers in washed-out denim, although they certainly matched the tenor of the moment with its sense of decay, bad faith, and lost idealism. When he pivoted to disaster movies, Allen found a way to recreate Cecil B. DeMille’s storied brand of epic, fire-and-brimstone storytelling for a new age, tailored to exploiting the mood of the 1970s with its guilty hedonism and equally guilty hunger for old Hollywood values even as the New Hollywood was officially ascendant. Indeed, the basic plot of The Towering Inferno is very similar to the modern-day half of DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments (1923).

The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno today might look like relics of a certain phase in Hollywood despite still being enormously entertaining. The ‘70s disaster movie genre never quite recovered from the pasting delivered by Airplane! (1980), a film that paid immediate homage-cum-ridicule to the style. In their time Allen’s films deftly tapped fashionable trends: they have something in common with The Exorcist (1973) not just in craftsmanship and storytelling savvy but in exploiting a certain guilty moralism amidst the zipless vicissitudes of the Me Decade as well as its fulminating fantasies about weathering such storms with a renewed sense of solidity. But Allen’s two best disaster films are still crucially emblematic of the emerging ideal of the blockbuster movie: indeed few other passages of cinema represent the blockbuster promise better than the opening credits of The Towering Inferno. Allen’s sense of Hollywood glamour was entirely rooted in movie stars and production values, and despite dealing in spectacle would rather spend his money on them rather than special effects, one reason he was completely bewildered by the rule-rewriting popularity of the almost big-name actor-free, FX-heavy Star Wars. There’s detectable Allen influence present in hit films as diverse as Die Hard (1987) and The Avengers films with their roster of carefully selected star turns, as well more obviously in Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich’s mega-budget breakage festivals. One obvious bridge between these two ages of Hollywood was the composer Allen brought over from his TV shows, John Williams, whose talent for emotionally textured scoring matched to outsized storytelling is as vital to the two Allen films just as it would be for Steven Spielberg.

Critics often take umbrage at the theatre of cruelty inherent in disaster movies, with some good reason, being as it is a genre that involves death on a mass scale. But that’s also part of its weird appeal, a quality it shares with horror movies: whilst there are usually certain expected didactic beats, it’s still an unusually unstable and unpredictable mode of storytelling in terms of characters and their fates, as well as usually boiling down to plain adventure tales about ordinary people trying to survive terrible situations. Paradoxically, they also purvey a dark-hearted lampooning of a crumbling ideal of Hollywood’s specialness, portraying quasi-celebrities and hangers-on or people thrust into situations once fit for Hollywood mythicism – ocean liners, skyscrapers – only to behold the fragility and tacky insubstantiality of such glamour. Allen’s films proved marketplaces where many different strata of Hollywood actor could commingle and attract different sectors of the audience.

Serious-minded, theatre-trained A-listers like Paul Newman and Gene Hackman rubbed shoulders with young, over-polished TV ingénues, veteran character actors, and aging studio-era stars who brought with them the aura of faded class, walking the line between retro camp and pathos in their presence. For his two signal hits in this mould, Allen was smart enough to employ well-weathered directors, although he would handle shooting action sequences for The Towering Inferno himself. Both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were directed by experienced, robust, no-nonsense British filmmakers, with Ronald Neame handling the former and John Guillermin the latter. Both films deal with situations where a number of characters are trapped in a deadly situation and race against time to survive, the former film depicting the survivors of a cruise ship capsized by a monstrous freak wave, the latter recounting efforts to save people trapped in a new skyscraper that becomes a flaming death trap. The former film is the superior in terms of its dramatic integrity and intensity, the latter as a piece of grandiose entertainment.

The Poseidon Adventure was adapted from a 1969 novel by Paul Gallico, a writer who had cut his teeth writing for publications like The Saturday Evening Post in the 1930s and ‘40s with their hunger for slick, polished, sentiment-greased turns of prose, and was best-known for his delicately symbolic novella The Snow Goose. Gallico reportedly took some inspiration for his plot from a story told to him by a crewman on the Queen Mary during its World War II troop ship service when it was almost capsized by a colossal rogue wave. Fittingly, the film’s early scenes were shot on the Queen Mary shortly after its retirement and installation as a floating hotel off Long Beach, California. Allen produced the film on a substantial but relatively restrained budget of $4.7 million at a time when Hollywood was counting its pennies stringently after the deadly days of the late 1960s. Gallico’s novel, despite his somewhat flat characters, tried to articulate a philosophy in portraying their straits when their world is literally turned upside down. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of The Poseidon Adventure as a film is that some of the philosophy actually survives the transfer, and might even have been clarified.

Hackman, stretching his legs for his first bit of Hollywood leading man business after winning an Oscar for The French Connection (1971), was cast as Reverend Scott, a strident, charismatic slum priest being deported to an African parish by his superiors. The film fixates on Scott as the angry and rebellious voice of defiance against helplessness and false idols, chiefly authority and illusory comfort, memorably illustrating his conviction the Lord helps those who help themselves: “You can wear off your knees praying for heat in a cold-water flat in February.” In this way The Poseidon Adventure cleverly courts the way the anti-authoritarian mood of the moment as it was being converted into a mode of pop culture shtick. The distrust of certain forms of power is signalled early in the film when Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), Captain of the aging, about-to-be scrapped ocean liner S.S. Poseidon butts heads with the representative of the owners, Linarcos (Fred Sadoff). Linarcos wants the ship delivered on schedule to the wrecking yard and won’t allow any delay to take on more ballast, leaving the ship top-heavy to a degree everyone aboard becomes queasily aware of as the ship rides out heavy weather in the mid-Mediterranean. On New Year’s Eve, many passengers assemble for a party in the first class dining room, but the Captain is called to the bridge when, following reports of an earthquake off Crete, the radar picks up a huge tsunami heading their way.

These scenes introduce key characters, all familiar types, in vignettes mostly striking a humorous note whilst establishing who and what everyone with little subtlety. There’s Mr Manny and Mrs Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), an old Jewish-American couple heading to Israel to see their infant grandson. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) is a sceptical New York detective travelling with his brassy, high-strung former prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens). James Martin (Red Buttons) is a haberdasher and luckless bachelor preoccupied with his health. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) is a comely young lass resentfully stuck with her overeager, nerdy younger brother Martin (Eric Shea) as they travel to meet up with their parents. Nonny Parry (Carol Lynley) is a sweet and blowsy singer in a band with her brother, employed on the ship for the cruise’s duration and bound for a music festival. And there’s Scott, who forcefully explains his peculiar worldview to the ship’s more conventional if quietly decent Chaplain (Arthur O’Connell) and gives a vigorous guest sermon attended by many of the important characters where he espouses an existential, questing, empowered kind of faith, where he declares God “wants winners, not quitters – if you can’t win then at least try to win!”

The opening vignettes often border on camp, particularly with Stevens’ loud performance as a loud woman (“For chrissakes I know what suppositories are, just get them out of here!” she tells her husband in her seasick eagerness to get rid of the ship’s doctor and nurse) and the theatrical confrontations between the Captain and Linarcos, who’s offered as a kind of slimy Onassis stand-in. Nielsen was later cast in Airplane! in homage to his performance as the doomed captain here, who so memorably mutters in stark solemnity, “Oh my god!” when he spots the wave bearing down upon his ship and makes a last-ditch effort to turn into it. The film clicks into gear in this sequence, as the wave hits whilst the midnight celebrations are in full swing. Neame cuts with shamelessly effective technique between the passengers’ increasingly merry, dizzy, oblivious sing-along to “Auld Lang Syne,” including close-ups of the obviously not celibate Scott carousing with a woman on each arm and young Robin frantically cheery, contrasted with the bridge crew’s stark, horrified awareness of impending disaster. When the colossal wave strikes the ship it rolls over with agonising slowness and finality, wiping out the bridge and tossing the passengers in the dining room about like so much confetti, climaxing with a famous shot of a luckless passenger who managed to cling onto a table losing his grip and plunging a great height into a false skylight.

Scott inevitably greets the disaster as the ultimate challenge to his special brand of muscular Christianity as he begins trying to organise the survivors and follows Robin’s advice thanks to his knowledge of the ship, as the kid suggests they should head for a propeller shaft where the hull is thinnest and most easily cut through by rescuers. Scott immediately finds himself in a shouting match with the ship’s purser (Byron Webster), who recommends staying put and waiting for rescue despite the obvious precariousness of their lot. “That’s not true!” the purser bellows when Scott declares no help is coming, to Scott’s retort, “It is true you pompous ass!” Scott and others appropriated the collapsed steel-framed Christmas tree to use as a ladder to reach a way out, where injured steward Acres (Roddy MacDowall) is stranded. Scott also repeatedly butts heads with Rogo, but the cop and his wife still join the Rosens and the Shelbys in aiding Scott. Martin coaxes the stunned and grief-stricken Nonny, whose brother died in the capsizing, to come with them. The sea breaks into the dining room, starting to flood it just as Scott’s party have ascended, and the ensuing panic causes the Christmas tree to collapse, obliging the agonised Scott to move on with what flock he has. Led by Acres through the formerly civilised but now dangerous obstacle course that is the ship’s interior, including the fiery death-trap of the kitchen and various shafts and stairwells, the survivors make agonising progress, and Acres falls to his death when exploding boilers shake the ship.

Neame, a former cinematographer who had collaborated as producer with David Lean before he moved into directing himself, was an intermittently excellent filmmaker. He sometimes got bogged down in glossy productions like the dull The Million Pound Note (1955) and a string of flat melodramas when he went to Hollywood in the 1960s, but made some terrific films including the underrated thrillers The Golden Salamander (1950), The Man Who Never Was (1956), and Escape From Zahrain (1962), as well as prestigious, well-regarded dramas about prickly, asocial or combative characters including The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Tunes of Glory (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The Poseidon Adventure, Neame’s biggest hit and one he later referred to dryly as his favourite work because it made him enough money to retire well on, was nonetheless perfect for him as it allowed him to sustain his interest in dynamic but difficult characters and combative relationships from his dramas in a survival situation close to those he liked in his genre films.

There are touches of gauche Hollywoodism, of course, finding excuses to get Stevens and Martin partly undressed and leaving Winters fully clothed whilst using her plumpness as a source of humour, as when Scott has to push her broad rump up through the spokes of the Christmas tree. Part of the film’s mystique as popular hit was the inclusion of the lilting, syrupy, insidiously catchy song “The Morning After”, nominally warbled by Nonny early in the film during her band’s rehearsal but actually sung by Maureen McGovern, providing an apt note of promise in regards to survival in almost Greek chorus fashion. The song won an Oscar and Allen would recommission McGovern to perform the similar “We May Never Love Like This Again” in The Towering Inferno. Nonetheless The Poseidon Adventure’s tautness once it gets going derives from the relentlessness of both the storyline, the banal yet chaotically defamiliarised setting and the constant flow of obstacles to be surmounted, and the hell of other people, as the survivors contend with each-other in brittle fashion in pinball game of personality.

The script, penned by the talented Hollywood ultra-professional Stirling Silliphant, an Oscar-winner for his work on In The Heat of the Night (1967), and Wendell Mayes, buffs down the edges of Gallico’s story a lot, excising a pathetic alcoholic couple as well as Susan and David’s parents from the group. In the novel Robin vanishes and is presumed dead, leaving his parents guilt-ridden and mutually hateful, whilst Susan was sexually assaulted by a panic-stricken young crewman who she then, rather oddly strikes up friendship with, only for him to run off in remorse to presumably die. The film instead places emphasis on the dynamics of the smaller group of survivors in their discovery of hidden resources and mixture of necessity and unease in mutual reliance. Sparks constantly fly as the rival types of alpha masculinity Scott and Rogo represent clash, Scott with his unflinching sense of mission aggravating Rogo’s cynical resistance and tendency to look to other figures of rank for authority. Scott with his turtleneck somehow still manages to look dashing when bedraggled whilst Rogo is a lump of boxy, grimy flesh. Rogo eventually demands to know why Scott is so utterly resistant to other options, as when they encounter another group of survivors being led by the doctor who are intent on heading for the bow rather than stern. Scott on the other hand maintains his utter derision of anything resembling herd mentality and blind obedience to empty promises based in fear and deference to anyone who sounds confident in denial of facts.

In this way, the inner core of surprising seriousness working as a parable about leadership and faith is enacted in the best way, through action and necessity of dramatic flow, whilst Hackman and Borgnine’s big, bristling performances provide the energy. Scott’s behaviour borders on the messianic even as his resolve and sense of purpose keep the others alive, berating the infuriated Rogo for failing to save Acres, whilst Rogo’s own wife constantly mocks his tendency to rely too much on a veneer of authority as meaning in itself. Martin’s gentle, solicitous way with helping Nonny through the disaster reveals his remarkably level head, whilst Lynley is excellent in playing the sort of character everyone tends to dislike because Nonny is the one no-one wants to be, a waifish innocent paralysed with fear at points: I particularly like the way Nonny vows “No, I won’t,” when Martin tells her to not to let go of him, nailing a note of giddy-fretful overemphasis in trying to be brave. Susan meanwhile has a crush on Scott, who treats her with fatherly affection and appreciates her support as he forges ahead despite the friction with Rogo. Her brother is an unusually believable kind of movie kid in his blend of cheek and fervent knowing, cheerily telling Mrs Rosen as he helps heave her up a stairwell he’s experienced in this sort of thing after helping boat a three hundred pound swordfish once, only to later apologise for any comparison.

In a much-beloved and oft-lampooned twist, Mrs Rosen, who constantly frets about her weight and status as an encumbrance, discovers her inner action hero and leaps to the rescue in recalling her glory days as a swimmer when the group must traverse a flooded section of the engine room and Scott gets trapped under a piece of wreckage blazing the trail, saving his life but promptly dying of a heart attack. Belle’s death is registered as the film’s signal moment of authentic tragedy, the passing of a motherly, gutsy figure played by an actress whose presence kept the film tethered to the mythology of old Hollywood. The ugly toll mounts as Linda falls to her death when the survivors seem on the brink of their goal, Rogo unleashing his rage and sorrow on Scott for his own empty promises, whilst the minister is confronted by a leaking steam valve blocking their path, an impediment that almost seems to personify the vindictive forces that seem intent on foiling their efforts to prove their living worth. Scott certainly takes it as such, berating it as the stand-in for the God he’s frustrated with as he makes a dangerous leap to grab the wheel to shut it off and then, as if in self-sacrifice, lets himself drop into the flame-wreathed brine below.

The Poseidon Adventure might well have been the first film I’d ever seen as a small boy where the hero dies, and so inevitably left a deep impact on me in this regard. What’s significant to me now is that the film clearly stands out from the pack of similar films through the way it tries to explore survival not just in a video game-like fashion of surmounting problems and stages but wrestling with its meaning. This theme runs through the movie like a live nerve, probing the worth of Scott’s conviction whilst ultimately validating them, and the way fighting for survival immediately provokes the characters to rise or fall depending on their capacities. The ultimate moment of rescue for the remaining characters is a plaintive, surprisingly muted moment, as they stand watching the cutting torch of rescuers burn through the hull, the answering light of salvation in comparison to the devil of the steam valve. Finally they’re pulled out and learn they’re the only survivors, before they’re ushered onto a helicopter that lifts off, leaving behind the upturned ship. As if by sarcastic design, The Towering Inferno begins with a helicopter in flight bringing its hero into danger: Paul Newman’s genius, playboy architect Doug Roberts, making for San Francisco to behold his masterwork, the 138–floor Glass Tower, rising like a great golden lance above the city.

Allen spent more than three times the budget on The Towering Inferno he had on The Poseidon Adventure, making a film that set out self-consciously to emulate grand old Hollywood extravaganzas like Grand Hotel (1932) with an added edge of apocalyptic drama, and was rewarded with an even bigger hit. Allen again hired Silliphant to write the film, this time melding two different novels with the same basic plot, The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson, a mating demanded when Allen convinced both Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros., who were planning rival films of the two books, to pool resources. This time the director was the Guillermin, who was both admired and hated for his demanding, exacting, even bellicose on-set style. Guillermin worked his way up through weak screen filler in the early 1950s before gaining attention with films including the brilliant neo-western Never Let Go (1960) and the plaintive drama Rapture (1965), and his string of  sardonic, antiheroic war films The Guns of Batasi (1964), The Blue Max (1966), and The Bridge at Remagen (1969). Despite his very real talents, in the ‘70s and ‘80s Guillermin found himself more prized for his ability to corral big budget opuses.

As in The Poseidon Adventure, responsibility for disaster in The Towering Inferno is laid not merely at the door of terrible chance but nefarious and corrupt business dealings. This time the theme is pushed more forcefully, in a movie that also proved uniquely well-suited to the season of Watergate’s last, sclerotic spasms and all the ensuing fear of decline and torpor it generated. Leaving aside any questions as to why someone would want to build the world’s tallest building in an earthquake zone, Doug’s magnum opus required engineering on a demanding scale, but he soon finds the electrical contractor, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), has installed cheap and inadequate wiring and pocketed the money saved. Roger is happy to point out that his father-in-law, Jim Duncan (William Holden), the real estate mogul responsible for financing the build, regularly pushes all his contractors to keep costs down. They soon discover the price for hubris is steep, as electrical fires begin breaking out all over the building on the night of its official opening, with a swanky gala being held in the Promenade Room on the 135th floor and every light in the structure turned on, overloading the frail systems.

The rapidly multiplying blaze, uncontained by sprinklers that won’t work, soon threatens the life of everyone in the building, which is split between residential and business floors. Doug and his chief engineer Will Giddings (Norman Burton) try to track down one outbreak, only for Giddings to be fatally burned saving a security guard as the conflagration bursts loose. Like many disaster movies the storyline’s ritual structure courts likeness to the Titanic sinking, with much made of the new building’s seemingly invulnerable façade and nabobs forced to display grace under pressure when things go to hell. Amongst the many characters entrapped by the blaze are Doug’s magazine editor fiancé Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway) and Roger’s wife Patty (Susan Blakely), Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughan), city Mayor Bob Ramsay (Jack Collins) and his wife Paula (Sheila Matthews Allen), Duncan’s PR man Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) and his office lover Lorrie (Susan Flannery), and building resident Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) and her date for the night, sweet-talking conman Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire).

The blaze soon attracts the SF Fire Department en masse, under the leadership of Chief Mike O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), who along with his firefighters confronts a blaze that proves impossible to tame by any conventional tactic. Duncan is initially reluctant to halt the party when he thinks they’re only facing a small, localised blaze, and doesn’t begin to evacuate until Mike tells him to in no uncertain terms, but the spreading fire soon cuts off all routes. Doug finds himself tasked with saving Lisolette and the two children (Carlena Gower and Mike Lookinland) of her neighbour she ventured down to fetch, after spotting her over a CCTV camera and dashing to the rescue. High winds make helicopter landings too dangerous – one attempt to brave the gusts causes a chopper crash. With the help of the Navy, the firefighters make recourse to suspending a breeches buoy between the Glass Tower and a neighbouring building and drawing people over one by one, a method that proves painfully slow and perilous as the guests draw lots to escape.

The opening shots of The Towering Inferno track Doug’s helicopter flying down the California coast and bursting out of a fog bank to behold the Golden Gate Bridge and sweeping over the bay in screen-filling vistas. Doug’s ‘70s bachelor cred is fully confirmed he swans in wearing a Safari jacket, beholding his magnificent yet termited creation from the chopper as it barrels over the San Francisco skyline, all set to Williams’ surging, venturesome scoring, immediately declares this film is going to be a thrill ride, as opposed to the tragic ominousness his scoring for the earlier film suggested. The spectacular cinematography by Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc would win one of the film’s several Oscars, despite having some rivals like The Godfather Part II and Chinatown that year with more artistic quality to their shooting, but the Academy seemed to sense a reclamation of Hollywood’s imperial stature apparent in the The Towering Inferno’s technical might and gloss. The quiet early scenes are better than those in The Poseidon Adventure if grazing high class soap opera or bestseller territory – the presence of Flannery, much to later to become a fixture on The Bold and the Beautiful, makes that connection more literal. The percolating social movements of the moment are nudged as Doug and Susan negotiate potential wrinkles in their relationship – Doug wants to retire to a remote ranch and become a rich dropout whilst Susan wants to take a big new job – after enjoying an afternoon shag in his apartment in the Tower.

Other characters go about their lives, with good little touches like Lisolette’s neighbour, mother of the kids she sets out to save, being deaf and so potentially oblivious to alarms. Astaire and Jones provide the regulation shot of old school star power. Astaire, rather astoundingly, gained his first and only Oscar nomination for his performance as the professionally charming, deceitful but essentially good-hearted Harlee. Astaire’s class in his tailor-made role is apparent when Harlee is introduced with a clue he’s busted as he laboriously counts out change to the taxi driver who delivers him to the building, and later confesses his wicked ways to Lisolette: “I brought you up here tonight to sell you a thousand shares in Greater Anaheim Power and Light…There is no Greater Anaheim Power and Light!” His sincerity is signalled when he dashes to cover a burn victim with his tuxedo jacket, a garment Guillermin has already let us know is rented. This detail is noted in an earlier scene that offers a gentle parody of his famous Royal Wedding (1951) hotel room dance scene as he similarly prepares himself for a date only to note the wrinkles on his face and throw down his hands in despair, only to strike a newly confident stance and get down to flimflamming.

The Towering Inferno demanded a lot more special effects work than The Poseidon Adventure, and whilst some of L.B. Abbott’s effects haven’t aged well, like the many rear-projected shots, there’s still some frightening majesty in the exterior surveys of the blazing building, as well as the admirable stunt work throughout. The film is of course replete with strong cliffhanger sequences, like the long scene mid-film where Doug leads Lisolette and the kids to safety finds them traversing a mangled stairwell, forced to climb down a dangling, twisted piece of railing over a bottomless pit. The cute kids are safe in such a movie, but elsewhere the film delights in dealing out death and mayhem. In true morality play/slasher movie fashion Bigelow and Lorrie die when, having snuck away for a quickie, find themselves trapped by the flames and die memorably cruel deaths. Williams’ music surges in grandly tragic refrains as Bigelow tries to make a desperate run for help only to quickly stumble and catch alight, all filmed in gruelling slow motion, whilst Susan accidentally blasts herself into space when she smashes a window and gets struck by the backdraft. When a bunch of party guests cram themselves into an elevator against all warnings and try to descend, the elevator returns soon after and disgorges them all ablaze and charred. Later the film ruthlessly inverts the game of moralistic expectation when Lisolette, the most innocent character in the film, falls to her death after saving a child, a shocking moment even after the umpteenth viewing.

If not as interesting and sustained as the survivalist philosophy in The Poseidon Adventure, the film is also given a level of depth beyond mere pretext in its approach to Doug, Roger, and Duncan and their varying levels of complicity in the disaster. Doug questions, “What do they call it when you kill people?” whilst knocking back stiff drinks mid-crisis. Early in the film Doug’s visit to Roger’s house to rumble him for his cheats leads into a vignette of odd pathos as Roger and Patty graze the void between them – “All I want is the man I thought I married” – that is weirdly similar in tone and undercurrents to Chamberlain’s early eye-catching role in Petulia (1968), and in the same locale to boot, with Chamberlain playing the superficially suave and sleek golden boy who’s actually a mass of furies. Roger is a progenitor of all the spineless creeps who would soon become regulation villain figures in ‘80s genre films, but offered with a deal more complexity, with his blend of guilty, pathetic chagrin and will for self-preservation. He declares his intention to “get quietly drunk” and needles Duncan over his complicity in his own misdeeds, before trying to butt his way into the queue for the breeches buoy, only for his father-in-law to sock him and declare they’ll be the last two out. Roger eventually dies along with Parker and others in a battle to control the buoy during which it collapses. Parker, whilst generally acting like a good guy throughout the drama, is nonetheless introduced being courted by Duncan with a soft bribe involving a case of vintage wine.

The amazing cast extends down to excellent character actors like Don Gordon as Mike’s number two. There’s even O.J. Simpson giving a surprisingly deft and personable performance as the stalwart security chief Jernigan, who saves the deaf mother and later delivers Lisolette’s pet cat to a distraught Harlee. Scott (Felton Perry) and Powers (Ernie Orsatti) are two firemen who are appointed as the representative workaday heroes: Scott groans in distress when he first realises, as they ride atop a fire truck through the city streets amidst the din towards their destination, just where the fire they’re going to is. They find themselves in the centre of the action when they meet up with Doug and his charges and climb to the Promenade Room, having to blow their way through the blocked fire door to reach the guests. Later Powers draws the job of accompanying some guests down in a hotwired elevator that rides along the building exterior, only for a gas blast to knock the elevator off its rails and leave it dangling, causing Lisolette’s fatal fall. Mike has to get himself choppered up to get the elevator hooked so the helicopter can lower it to the ground, with Mike hanging on to Powers after he’s nearly jolted loose during the agonisingly slow journey down. In a spectacular twist on the man falling into the skylight in The Poseidon Adventure, Powers slips from Mike’s grasp still far above the street only to land on an inflatable cushion, in perhaps the film’s greatest moment of spectacle.

The credits notably gave McQueen and Newman equal, staggered billing, a moment of wry triumph for McQueen considering he’d long regarded Newman as both a figure of emulation and his singular rival for a lot of roles. Aptly if ironically, The Towering Inferno eventually becomes a ‘70s buddy movie as Doug and Mike try to work together with their sharply polarised personas but equally professional temperaments, as well as Newman and McQueen’s very different acting styles. Mike doesn’t appear until forty minutes into the film but immediately dominates as McQueen’s signature minimalist, hangdog look of frayed and weathered stoicism where emotion lives only in deep wells behind his lethal blue gaze, is perfect for playing an action hero who’s also a world-weary working stiff. He’s the living embodiment of everything that’s the antithesis of the glossy magazine world represented by the people on the Promenade Room, accepting all the crazy and dangerous jobs the fire demands and quietly but exactly telling Doug off for building death-traps people like him have to risk their lives in: “Now you know there’s no sure way we can fight a fire that’s over the seventh floor. But you guys just keep building them as high as you can.” Later, in a particularly great shot, Guillermin’s camera surveys the building lobby full of the injured and shattered and finds Mike, having performed a great feat of bravery, slumped against the wall and resting, indistinguishable from his fellow fire fighters in exhaustion, only to be called off to action again. Dunaway, like Newman and McQueen at the apex of mid-‘70s star power, is by comparison pretty wasted, although Susan’s early scenes with Doug are interesting in introducing a nascent meditation on emerging feminism obliging new understandings.

The balance between Allen’s investment in human drama as a channel for and manifestation of the politics of Hollywood star power and Guillermin’s fascination for disillusioned romanticism and agonised social climbers lies in the sputtering empathy shown the characters who all have their spurring ambitions that turn into queasy self-owns. It’s telling that despite Duncan’s culpability the film spares him and grants him a level of dignity as a conflicted patriarch whose upright side ultimately wins through as he tries, once the situation becomes plainly urgent, to hold things together and run the evacuation right, even socking Roger when he tries to push his way into the breeches buoy. Perhaps this respect is because Duncan feels most like an avatar for Allen himself, a man of vision and enterprise who nonetheless knew how to get things done in cutting the right corners at the perpetual risk of producing something tony but shoddy, squeezed between the conscientious auteur Doug, the on-the-make young gun Roger, and Mike as the embodiment of all the bills coming due, throwing parties for the rich and famous whose air of glamour and power is mocked by calamity. Harlee, likewise has some resemblance to a down-on-his luck industry player trying to sustain himself between hits through constantly promising a slice of the next big thing.

The Towering Inferno is then a film really about Hollywood, its sense of anxiety and dislocation matching that of the country at large in the mid-1970s moment, surviving on the fumes of former greatness but finally looking to its big new stars to save the day. And save it they do, in both senses. Mike is sent up to take the last chance for saving the remaining guests, dropped onto the Tower’s roof to meet up with Doug and blow open some colossal water tanks in the building’s upper reaches. This unleashes a flood that douses the fire, even if the cure proves nearly as dangerous as the disease, blasts and torrents of water killing several survivors including the Mayor and the affable bartender (Gregory Sierra). The climax is tremendous as Williams cranks up the tension with his music in league with Guillermin’s editing.

The unleashed war of fire and water finally offers an entirely elemental battle, amidst which the humans are reduced to flailing afterthoughts, including one startling shot of Astaire tied to a column with hands over his ears, water crashing upon him. The flood subsides and leaves the survivors to pick themselves up amidst drifting mist with a touch of mystical import, echoing the sea mist at the opening. The coda blends triumph with a tone of exhaustion and forlorn loss, registered most keenly by Harlee as he looks for Lisolette only for Jernigan to plant her cat in his arms, whilst Duncan consoles his widowed daughter. It’s hard to imagine a movie as pricey and popular these days signing off with one of its major protagonists considering leaving his grand creation as a blackened husk as Doug comments, “Maybe they oughta just leave it the way it is – kinda shrine to all the bullshit in the world,” and asking Mike for advice, the fire chief heading off home after another day at the office.

And that’s perhaps the most appealing and potent aspect of Allen’s twin great disaster movies nearly a half-century later – big, brash, and cheesy as they certainly are, they are nonetheless movies that take themselves seriously on the right levels, and offer cinematic spectacle still rooted to the earth and the travails of ordinary people whilst finding biblical-scale drama in eminently possible situations. They convey a lingering sense of existence very fitting for creative hands borne out of Depression and war, the feeling that every now and then, no matter how stable and safe the world is, the bottom can suddenly drop out and demand every particle of a person to survive. Allen’s problem was that having found a good thing he went back to the well too many times, first with The Swarm with its ridiculous tale of a killer bee invasion, and then when that failed essentially remaking The Towering Inferno as When Time Ran Out…. There Allen swapped the Glass Tower for a resort hotel next to an erupting volcano, with Newman and Holden basically playing the same roles whilst offering screen time and sympathy to the film’s Roger equivalent, played by a subbing James Franciscus. Whilst not as a bad as often painted, it was certainly cheap and tacky and represented a formula milked dry, huge success supplanted by try-hard failure. Which is perhaps, the oldest morality play of all, at least in show business.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Comedy

Airplane! (1980) / Top Secret! (1984)

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Directors/Screenwriters: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Coscreenwriter on Top Secret!: Martyn Burke

By Roderick Heath

Known collectively as ZAZ, the writing and directing team of brothers David and Jerry Zucker and pal Jim Abrahams started their careers in that comedy Mecca, of Madison, Wisconsin, where they were key members of a satirical sketch troupe called the Kentucky Fried Theatre. The burgeoning American, Canadian, and British fringe comedy scenes of the 1970s became a proving ground for so many of the talents who would become stars in in the 1980s, but ZAZ were some of the relatively few from such scenes who found their place behind the camera. They graduated to the big screen in collaboration with John Landis on the 1978 film The Kentucky Fried Movie, and soon were given the chance to make their own movie. The trio decided, rather than simply offer a string of sketches as they had in their previous outing, they would present a mostly coherent lampoon of a specific type of movie and use it as a scarecrow to hang their jokes on. ZAZ, with their encyclopaedic sense of pop culture and authentic streak of movie buff fondness for the sorts of films they would nonetheless ransack for camp and kitsch, decided to take a whack at sending up the disaster movie genre that had been huge business throughout the 1970s for Hollywood. The resulting concoction, Airplane!, released in 1980, was a hugely profitable hit and quickly became enshrined amongst the most beloved comedy cult films.

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By comparison, ZAZ’s 1984 follow-up Top Secret!, a panoramic swipe at spy, war, and Elvis movies, gained a comparatively muted response and lingered more quietly on video store shelves and occasional TV showings, although it too eventually gained veneration. The trio also stumbled with their attempt to create a TV series, Police Squad! (1982), but gained their revenge when they adapted it as a movie, The Naked Gun (1987), and scored another popular hit that birthed two sequels. After tackling a script written by others on Ruthless People (1986) whilst still a team, the trio split to take on solo directing works: Abrahams tackled Big Business (1988), Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael (1990), and the more ZAZ-like Hot Shots! films (1991, 1993). Jerry Zucker proved the most willing to go off-brand with the supernatural romance Ghost (1990) and Arthurian tale First Knight (1995), before stalling with Rat Race (2001), a tribute to one of the ZAZ stylistic influences, Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). David directed the first two Naked Gun entries, worked with the creators of the very ZAZ-like TV series South Park on BASEketball (1998), and later took over the Scary Movie franchise from the Wayans brothers, before undoing himself somewhat with the right-wing patriotic screed An American Carol (2008).

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With Airplane!, ZAZ reinvented the movie parody genre, one that had only known sporadic stabs anyway over the years, and which was generally left to television, which could speedily assimilate and produce a send-up and move on. A good feature-length lampoon, by contrast, had to amass decades’ worth of clichés and points of reference to work. Bob Hope had made his name in movies poking their tongues out at other movies, with the likes of the horror movie burlesques The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), the Western-disassembling farce The Paleface (1950) and its Frank Tashlin-directed sequel (1952). Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963) had made sport of the gothic horror revival of its day and the Carry On films had often revolved around making fun of familiar genres, from historical epics to spy movies. ZAZ spurned however the relatively traditional approach of many of these, for they also channelled the bristling linguistic and behavioural anarchism of the Marx Brothers, frenetic zaniness of H.C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), the free-for-all aesthetic of MAD Magazine, the protean, associative strangeness of Looney Tunes, and the provocative black comedy of Harvard’s National Lampoon, which was also trying to leverage a turn to the big screen around the same time as ZAZ.

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ZAZ’s immediate forerunners as Jewish wiseacres turned comedy auteurs had been Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who had many of the same influences. Allen had leveraged his own movie career with genre-specific send-ups like What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966) and Take The Money And Run (1969), whilst Brooks, with the Western survey Blazing Saddles (1974), had kicked off his own popular imprimatur as a movie satirist with a willingness to distort cinematic reality through a jarring blend of retro mores and contemporary attitude, even with meta-movie twists in Blazing Saddles. Where ZAZ went one better than him was in adopting an ever faster pace of gag deployment, and in adding an extra zest of panoramic social satire. One reason for ZAZ’s success in this regard lay in their eager embrace of simultaneous styles of humour: Airplane! maintains its giddy rush of gags simply by trusting that one funny thing is as good as another. For lovers of older movies, the impact of the ZAZ style, like that of the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, can be a mixed blessing, as it can be hard to appreciate the particular pleasures of the sorts of movies they aimed at without feeling a little hectored. And yet, unlike the Monty Python team, who with their films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), liked to deconstruct stories in time with assaults on social conventions, ZAZ maintained a less cynical affection for the movies they liked to pull apart, and honoured despite their sarcasm the basic story logic of such models.

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Undoubtedly, the greater part of Airplane!’s success lay in the way it offered a machine gun volley of jokes without rhyme and scarcely any reason, a velocity of laughs that made Brooks look positively lackadaisical. But the pace of humour disguised other, deftly organised principles. One smart move was in avoiding directly mocking any particular entry in the ‘70s disaster cycle, instead taking as its basis a lesser-known progenitor to give it a proper narrative backbone. Arthur Hailey, who had written the novel Airport that was filmed in 1970 and kicked off the disaster movie craze, had dabbled in the theme of aerial crisis years earlier, with the Canadian TV play Zero Hour, adapted into a film starring Dana Andrews in 1957. That film, with its story of a war-damaged flying veteran pressganged into landing a passenger plane after its aircrew go down with food poisoning, offered a perfect narrative structure, because it allowed the disaster situation to be at once static and open-ended. Airplane!’s power derives from the way, despite every impediment it throws in his path both plot-wise and comedic, it still credits protagonist Ted Striker (Robert Hays) with a traditional hero’s journey as he tries to overcome self-doubt and trauma and win back his stewardess girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) in the course of saving the day, an aspect enabled by Hays’ skill in both delivering deadpan humour and evoking everyman empathy. But perhaps the deepest source of Airplane!’s specific pep lay in its driving sense of ironic contrast, between the slick neatness of Hollywood narrative and the bizarre lilt of modern American life circa 1980.

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The Kentucky Fried Movie had already unveiled ZAZ as a team with a delight mixed with derision for the commercialised accoutrements of the ‘70s lifestyle obsession, spawned from the team’s old habit of leaving their VCR recording late-night TV and making sport of the esoterica they found that way—Zero Hour being such relic. Airplane! is obsessed with many of its characters as free-floating bodies of unhinged wont, from Capt. Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) as a discerning reader of Modern Sperm magazine and advanced-studies purveyor in paedophilic overtures, to his wife in bed with her equine lover, and the rank of people delighting in a chance to deal out some brute force to a hysterical woman. The famous early gag of two announcing voices on a Los Angeles airport PA system, whose disagreement over what the various zones are for soon shades into an argument over the woman getting an abortion, exemplifies this aspect: drab functionalism warps into a deeply personal spat over the fallout of sex and intimacy, inspired by aspects of Airport. ZAZ consciously set up two ways of experiencing movies in opposition. The old, square, WASP style was represented by the cadre of actors once regularly cast as stern and serious types, including Leslie Nielsen, Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack. They collide with a more contemporary landscape, one infected with a polyglot of rich and perverse players. Stack’s adamantine action man Rex Kramer, once a battler of enemy nations during “The War,” is now reduced to calmly hacking his way through a score of pestering new age proselytisers.

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The Airport films had already displayed distinct aspects of knowing camp, which made sending them up, like the Roger Moore-era James Bond films, a difficult task as they were already in essence self-satires: nobody could take Helen Reddy as a singing nun entertaining a deathly ill Linda Blair seriously. Airplane!’s dichotomous strategy helped it pull off the trick. Many ‘70s disaster movies fed parasitically on a faded ideal of movie glamour and star power, casting former big-name performers and finding creative ways of killing them off. ZAZ by contrast dug up actors to get them to repurpose their images, ironically doing better by such actors and even transforming Nielsen and Bridges into late-career comedy stars. This approach rewarded viewers who also remembered and delighted in those old, cheesy movies, and even ones that weren’t that old – Nielsen’s presence was directly inspired by his contribution to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – but worked just as well if you didn’t: I dare say that as a kid watching Airplane! (when I knew it by its Australian release title, Flying High!) was the first time I’d encountered many such performers and conventions, thus also making it a kind of miniature film school. It also contrasted the more traditionally comedic, hammy, neo-vaudevillian shtick Brooks was keeping alive. Not that Airplane! suppresses that shtick as an influence. The film’s most perpetually quoted exchange, “Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” is so pure in channelling those roots you can easily imagine Groucho and Chico Marx uttering it, but it’s given a very specific quality here via Nielsen’s utter conviction in delivering the punchline. Only a highly professional actor with decades of experience in the soul-weathering art of making terrible dialogue sound vital could truly do it justice.

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Some of this explains why immediate precursors to Airplane! didn’t gain nearly so much traction. Neil Israel’s Americathon (1979) had a very similar pitch of exacerbating zeitgeist trends with a strong dose of randy, post-yippie smart-assery, but it had an inverse proportion of political and lifestyle satire to pop culture joking to Airplane!, and its shots at the latter aspect were too vaguely observed to offer the same frisson. James Frawley’s The Big Bus (1976) beat Airplane! to the punch in mocking the disaster movie craze with a very similar approach including casting self-satirising stars and mixing in a panoply of genre movie influences. Indeed, it took on some common touches with enough effect ZAZ didn’t have to bother with them, like the smarmy lounge singer act, but played a much cleaner game and lacked the later film’s all-encompassing licence. ZAZ’s twists tend not to just take a cliché and reproduce it for smirking recognition but build on it, like the notion of a couple of non-English-speakers in the midst of disaster causing contention for the crew here offered via the two black men (Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White) who speak only in incredibly dense jive argot. This is then given further layering by making the unlikely translator for their native language Barbara Billingsley, the mother from Leave It To Beaver, and then having them regaled by The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (1974) songstress Maureen McGovern in the guise of a singing nun whose version of “Respect” inspires profuse vomiting.

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One further aspect of Airplane!‘s special brilliance lay in the way ZAZ revealed themselves as proper filmmakers, with ready ability to balance comedic performance with cinematic movement. They shift nimbly between set-ups to give each joke its necessary space in a way that strongly contrasts the tendency of today’s comedy filmmakers like Paul Feig to indulge rambling pseudo-improvisation and any-shot-will-do indolence to contain the humour. Some of Airplane!’s best gags, like an airline mechanic (Jimmy Walker) tending to the plane like a gas station hand in the background of a functional scene, or a mockery of beatifically smiling faces leaning into frame as they listen to a beautiful song including one man descending from overhead, depend on a poise of visual exposition beyond many comedy directors. Airplane!‘s willingness to go off-brand in sourcing its laughs, if one that from a certain standpoint refuses to obey any ground rules and so seeming a touch mercenary, nonetheless helped to free up its reflexes rather than merely offer a checklist of honoured cliches. As well as disaster movies Airplane! sidesteps to take swipes at old war movies and then-recent hits, most hilariously illustrated by Ted’s flashback recollection of meeting Elaine in a seedy nightspot, the Mogambo, “populated by every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta – it was worse than Detroit.” This sequence ticks off such familiar flourishes of the old movie dive bar as the sexy sauntering legs accompanied by saucy jazz (the owner of the legs here blowing a lick on a trombone) and two soldiers getting into a fight over a card game (except the uniformed battlers here are a pair of girl scouts).

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This skews unexpectedly into a mockery of John Travolta’s famous dance scene from Saturday Night Fever (1977) as genuinely ebullient as it is pitiless in excavating the postures of contemporary urban warrior fantasy encapsulated in the model, as well as its dodgy showmanship, knowing full well the Travolta vehicle sold the notion of the modern cowboy as a duellist on the range of slick moves and quick sex. Airplane! incidentally depicts once-suppressed subcultures becoming conversant with each-other, an idea made into literal jokes with the Jive dudes and the sight of a nun and a kid each reading a magazine on the other social subset’s lifestyle, but extended throughout the narrative more implicitly as ZAZ obey Terry Southern and Lenny Bruce’s project for American satirical comedy as an unveiling of the basic hungers of US society in a way unadorned by high-flown cant. Johnny (Stephen Stucker) is deployed later in the film to wield shafts of camp anarchy (“Fog’s getting thicker!” “And Leon’s getting laaarrrrgggeeer!”). In perhaps the film’s funniest and filthiest sustained gag, Elaine has to refill the plane’s inflatable Automatic Pilot (Otto) in a literal blow-job that leaves the intruding Rumack bewildered and concludes with both lady and dummy smoking in suggestive bliss. This scene works as a totally random excursion into sexy humour but incidentally offers a sharp capsule summary of the Airport series’ preoccupation with contemporary sexual mores: Elaine getting it on after a fashion with Otto is also an act of sensual liberation commensurate with Ted’s recovery of his manly mojo.

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Some jokes don’t fly so well now. Ted’s account of his and Elaine’s stint trying to school a remote African tribe takes a poke at white self-congratulation as Ted suggests his “advanced Western teaching techniques” help the tribe learn basketball when they clearly, instantly grasp and master the game, but also feels a bit graceless in taking on racist cliché. ZAZ’s tilts at ‘70s licentiousness also mediate the looming spectre of ‘80s Reaganism. The many pot-shots at the about-to-be-President, including a running joke based on his 1940 film Knute Rockne, All-American (“Go out there and win just one for the Zipper!”) bespeak ZAZ’s suspicion that the desire to vote for Reagan was also the desire of an America tiring of contemporary lunacy to live in an old movie. Indeed, David Zucker’s later conservative turn suggests he might have empathised with it even then. The mid-film pause for a sing-along as stewardess Randy (the splendid, astonishingly underemployed Lorna Patterson) comforts heart transplant patient Lisa (Jill Whelan) sees her belting out Peter Yarrow’s internationalist anthem “River of Jordan,” an affirmation of general idealism hilariously undercut by not noticing she’s knocked out Lisa’s IV tube. Here ZAZ identify with lacerating exactitude not just silliness of the model scenes in Airport 1975 (1974) but also the way the ‘60s version of poptimism became supplanted by Me Decade obliviousness.

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Similarly, Kramer’s rampage through the pestilential proliferation of airport badgerers depicts exhaustion with the whole panoply of consciousness-raising and social issue-mongering. Airplane! ends gleefully with Ted landing the plane safely and the pompous Kramer continuing to explore the nature of trauma over the radio (“Have you ever been kicked in the head with an iron boot?”) past the point of necessity, and the lifestyle aspect is given its last wink as Otto gains an inflatable mate and takes off to the wild blue yonder. Elmer Bernstein’s ingenious score gives the film a deal of cohesion as he imbues even absurd scenes with a dramatic tenor equal to that of the square-jawed old actors, and sends the film out with a grandiose march that underlines the carnivalesque sense of all-American good-humour. Top Secret!, when it arrived four years later, was already contending with a different social landscape. The old-fashioned values ZAZ had made fun of were regaining currency in mainstream movies; Ted Striker’s redemptive arc soon became that of John Rambo and John McClane and Martin Riggs. The kinds of old spy and war movies the story was based in had already been bundled together with extra lashings of action and spectacle as well as wry knowing in the Indiana Jones films.

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The film’s Elvis stand-in, Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer, making his movie debut), has made his name performing trend-riding, sub-Beach Boys hits. The opening credits depict a music video for his hit song “Skeet Surfin’”, a ditty explaining the pleasures of blasting clay pigeons whilst hanging five, complete with random shots slicing off beach umbrellas and bringing down hang-gliders. Nick is invited to East Germany to participate in a cultural festival being held by the local Commie Nazis as a last-minute substitute for Leonard Bernstein. The festival is being staged as cover for a plot to unleash a device that can wreck NATO warships, a device invented by the imprisoned Dr Paul Flammond (Gough). Flammond’s daughter Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) is an agent in the underground although he thinks she’s in the Stasi’s hands. Nick becomes involved when he saves Hillary from an assassin during a ballet, arrested by the authorities and imprisoned, where he encounters Flammond and learns of the plot. He and Hillary make contact with a resistance cell led by an agent who proves to be Nigel (Christopher Villiers), the man Hillary grew up with whilst shipwrecked on a desert island but whom she presumed to be dead. Together they launch a mission to rescue Flammond from prison, but of course someone in the resistance ranks is a mole.

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The relatively substantial plot and carefully developed visual and verbal parodying clearly advances on Airplane!. But there remains a similar free-form mix of jokes, with gags based in such random epiphanies as revealing men’s ballet costumes, with a ballerina prancing upon a raft of bulging crotches. One of the most magnificently odd sight gags in movie history comes half-way through when Nick and Hillary sit in a park with a giant statue of a pigeon, upon which flying men land and defecate. Other jokes are based in more specific reference points: Omar Sharif’s spy character Cedric is trapped and crushed in a car a la Goldfinger (1964) only to turn up later stumbling along encased in the crumpled metal. The standard moment in Westerns where some horses are stampeded to forestall pursuit here sees Nick shooing off a herd of waiting pushbikes. Ian McNeice appears as Cedric’s underground contact who poses as a blind seller of novelties and party tricks, several of which he inflicts on the hapless spy in the name of covering their communication. Despite the German setting, Nigel’s underground cell is filled with French resistance warriors whose names are all Francophone clichés: “This is Chevalier…Montage…Detente…Avant Garde…and Déjà Vu.” “Haven’t we not met before, Monsieur?” The unfortunate member Latrine constantly turns up in a state of bloodied suffering.

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The horrors of repression and torture are often found to be less terrifying than some more prosaic forms of torment — after a terrible dream of being back in High School, Nick is blissfully relieved to awaken and see he’s only being whipped by Stasi thugs. Said thugs are a terrifying prospect: “Bruno is almost blind, has to operate wholly by touch. Klaus is a moron, who knows only what he reads in the New York Post.” Top Secret!’s relative failings in comparison to its predecessor take a little teasing out. Whilst it offers a similar survey of familiar actors mocking their stock personas, including Sharif, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough, most of their contributions aren’t as sustained or clever. Whilst Top Secret! still takes a time-out for a send-up of a recent popular hit, in this case The Blue Lagoon (1980), it’s a reference point that offers no similar opportunity for a discursion as dynamic as the Mogambo dance. Where the very end of Airplane! gives the film’s comedy and its relative straight aspects a perfectly entwined send-off, Top Secret! seems more to just stop. Whilst the film still contains some good riffs contending with sexual mores and perversities (the Anal Intruder) and satirical jolts, it lacks the cohesive comic substrata that aspect offered in the earlier film.

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That said, other aspects of Top Secret! improve on Airplane!. The running jokes are developed with more patience and sneaky wit, like the constant difficulties with language and translation in regards to both languages and spy codes. The choice of tethering a send-up of films based in geopolitics to the fantasy vision of Elvis Presley’s movie vehicles (particularly Harum Scarum, 1965), with their implicit promise of carefree deliverance through worshipping the beautiful idol of rock’n’roll, turns Top Secret! into a sustained interrogation of America’s place in the world at the height of renewed Cold War tensions. Top Secret! offers American leadership in the post-WWII era as a sustained act of show business. Nick repeatedly makes an impact upon the hidebound East German establishment by dint of his rocker showmanship, beating a Soviet tenor to the punch in performing for a ritzy audience, winning over everyone except the fuming military chiefs (even the elderly house band quickly adapts to a rock ethos) and rocking out a pizza parlour when the resistance fighters demand proof he’s not Mel Torme. Nick’s performance at the festival sees him cranking up James Brown’s theatrical desperation with gestures like trying to hang and gas himself. By contrast the East German anthem is a hymn of sinister caution (“Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn’t first”) set to the music from a Wisconsin high school’s song.

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The cultural satire here echoes a lot of overt propaganda issued around this time about the west’s free and easy attitude compared to the browbeaten tenor of the eastern bloc, with the twist from ZAZ that acknowledges Nick’s espousal of freedom was considered quite a distance from what a lot of western leaders felt desirable too just a few years earlier. By implication ZAZ consider Hollywood moviemaking and pop music potent forms for creating a mythology for combating repressiveness whilst also perhaps blinding people to the west’s own failings in this regard. That’s a frontier of satire ZAZ mostly shy away from, except when Hillary, explaining her own father’s narrow brush with political collapse as an immigrant to the US: “He was one of the lucky ones, he managed to escape in a balloon during the Jimmy Carter presidency,” and decries how disengaged US youth is: Nick can only protest in counterpoint that his high school history class once spent a week in Philadelphia. The alarm over Reagan’s rise mooted in Airplane! is now solidified: Cold War politics are now plainly being administrated as if in an old movie in broad strokes of morality. Meanwhile the returned Nigel delights Hillary as she measures up various parts of his anatomy and aggravates the nonetheless understanding Nick, although Nigel seems to be harbouring pretty happy memories of being ravaged by the sailors who rescued him from the island. Of course, Nigel turns out to be the mole in the unit, obliging him and Nick to fight it out.

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By comparison with Airplane!’s targeting of films still fresh in the public memory, ZAZ felt Top Secret! might have stumbled in comparison by taking movies greatly receded in pop culture’s rear-view mirror. This aspect nonetheless reveals the second film as a work more deeply ensconced in a film buff’s sensibility, and casual gags hide riches for fellow travellers. Like Cushing’s Swedish book store owner, first glimpsed with a huge bulging eye glimpsed through a magnifying glass only to lower the glass and prove to actually have a huge bulging eye: this works as a casually surreal visual joke but also happens to recreate and mock an image from a couple of Cushing horror vehicles. A glimpse of a looming telephone Kemp’s army bigwig picks up turns out to actually be ridiculously large rather than a product of dramatic forced perspective. Whilst Airplane! showed ZAZ had abilities as visual jokesters, Top Secret! is a much freer, far more deftly staged work of physical comedy and moviemaking style, closer to the style of Richard Lester (to whom Top Secret! nods by tossing in a singing horse that warbles “A Hard Day’s Night”), with some touches even approaching the likes of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, with reaches of staged comedy Airplane! only briefly reached for in moments like the plane crashing through a terminal window.

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The film’s very start offers the sight of Cedric and a German soldier battling atop a train, with Cedric ducking to allow his foe to be swatted off by a bridge only for the bridge to crumble around the soldier. Nick’s introduction sees him trying to paint the rural landscape from his train window and proving to have skilfully recreated the motion blur. The Resistance’s battles with the Germans sees the hulking, cigar-eating Chocolate Mousse (Eddie Tagoe) knocking out squads of enemies with improbably good shooting. Later he causes a German armoured car to swerve off the road with his shooting, although it takes the car slightly tapping a parked Pinto to cause a devastating explosion. A stop at a train station as Nick and his manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) sees the platform itself start rolling away leaving the stationary train and a passenger chasing after it, in a poke at the set-bound action of a lot of classic Hollywood movies. Kilmer and Gutteridge perform a ridiculous traditional dance whilst arguing politics, a very Brooksian touch. The to-and-fro dashing of the Resistance fighters pauses to become a Broadway kick routine. A German soldier tossed off the prison battlements hits the ground only to shatter like a plaster statue. One of the best violations of the fourth wall in any movie comes when Nick rattles off all the improbable events that’s befallen him and Hillary, and she acknowledges, “Yes, it all sounds like the plot of some bad movie.” Whereupon she and Nick stand stiff and awkward with their gazes turning ever so nervously towards the audience.

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Kilmer’s physicality and authentic movie star lustre are invaluable to the movie’s energy, Kilmer performing Nick’s dance moves and dashing through the comedy action scenes with a gusto no other film’s ever asked of him, not even his sorry outings as Batman and The Saint. His performance of “Straighten Out The Rug” in the pizzeria sees Nick do a breakdance spin so well he saws a hole in the floor, whilst dancing guys swing rag doll partners around their heads. Kilmer is almost too much the real deal for a burlesque. The brilliantly strange climax sees Nick and Nigel fall off a truck as they fight it out and plunge into a river where they engage in an underwater fist fight in a sunken Western saloon, a sequence that must have taken some extraordinary effort to achieve. Nick knocks out his foe and strides out through the swinging doors to the Bonanza theme. The very end feels abrupt in a way that suggests problems with editing, and indeed ZAZ did leave a lot on the cutting room floor, but it does honour its models again as Hillary contemplates with sad wisdom, like many an old war movie heroine before her, whether to stay in the fight or wing away to a new life: “Things change. People change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate.” The fight for freedom in a world where an actor or TV celebrity can be elected president goes on.

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